Speeches

Federal Parliament - Mrs Edith Dircksey Cowan OBE

March 15, 2021

Dr ALYI move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) 12 March 2021 is the 100th anniversary of Edith Cowan's election to the seat of West Perth in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, making her the first woman elected to any Australian parliament;

(b) Edith Cowan was an extraordinary and tireless advocate for the rights of women and children, and she sought and won election to the Legislative Assembly in an effort to strengthen those rights; and

(c) in addition to her elected office, she was also a campaigner for women's suffrage, a major contributor to many social welfare organisations and a noted jurist;

(2) recognises Edith Cowan's remarkable legacy, which is commemorated in the names of Edith Cowan University and the federal electoral division of Cowan, as well as in artistic works such as the play,With Fire in her Heart: The Edith Cowan Story, a retelling of her life which premiered at the 2021 Perth Fringe Festival; and

(3) commits to upholding Edith Cowan's contributions to Australian civil society by working to further the rights of women and children in all spheres of Australian life.

I'm really happy to stand here and put forward this motion to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the election of Edith Cowan, the first woman to be elected to any parliament in Australia.

Edith Cowan was born on Glengarry Station in 1861. Her mother died at a very, very early age, and she grew up in a boarding school. At the age of 15, she was orphaned when her father was sent to the gallows and hung for the crime of shooting her stepmother in a drunken rage after having squandered the family's finances on alcohol. Edith Cowan was married at the age of 18, and she became prominent in the women's suffrage movement throughout Western Australia. She was an advocate for public education and the rights of women and children, including children born to single mothers. She was the first woman to serve on the board of education. She founded the Children's Protection Society in 1906, which helped establish the Children's Court. She later became a justice of the Children's Court in 1915. She co-founded the women's service guild in 1909. She established the state branch of the National Council of Women in 1911. She helped establish the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women and was a member of their advisory board in 1916. She became a justice of the peace in 1920. Her legacy is long. She did so much in the cause of women and children throughout her life.

In 1921, she decided to run for the Western Australian Legislative Assembly. It was a big undertaking for her, and it wasn't well received by many of the members of the Western Australian public, Mr Deputy Speaker, I can tell you that. They argued that she should be at home looking after her children, despite the fact that her youngest of five children was 35 years old. She won her seat in West Perth running for the Nationalist Party in 1921, where she, ironically, defeated the incumbent Attorney-General, Thomas Draper, who was the one who actually introduced the legislation that allowed women to stand for parliament in the first place. Edith Cowan's legacy cannot be understated. Her portrait appears on the $50 note. She has a university named after her, Edith Cowan University, of which I am a proud three-time graduate, and, of course, the electorate of Cowan named after her, and it is an absolute honour to represent an electorate that is named after such a formidable woman.

I had the pleasure, during the couple of weeks of the Perth fringe festival, to attend a play called With Fire in her Heart, which was written by Trevor Todd about the life of Edith Cowan. That play was written at the Peter Cowan Writers Centre, which is housed in Edith Cowan House at the Edith Cowan University campus in Joondalup and is named after Edith's grandson, Peter Cowan. The play With Fire in her Heart tells the story of Edith Cowan through the eyes of her grandson, Peter Cowan. Watching the play brought many, many emotions for me. It not only portrayed Edith as an incredible and remarkable humanitarian, a champion of the rights of those less fortunate than her, but also portrayed her own struggles in her life, particularly her personal life, with the death of her mother at such an early age, being sent to boarding school, the death of her father under such tragic circumstances and the kinds of challenges that she had to face becoming a member of parliament. When she first got elected, she won by a very, very small margin, and I cried at that bit, because I know exactly how that feels. Even my husband, who was sitting next to me, had a little something in his eye during the times of the play where her husband was portrayed. He was such a wonderful support for her and for her aspirations to enter parliament as well.

I note that Edith Cowan served only one term. She lost her seat in 1924 and ran unsuccessfully in 1927. I think there's something to be learned in that. How interesting it is that such a trailblazer of a woman, such a trailblazer for women's rights and for women's position in parliament, lost her seat after only one term, because today women on all sides of politics are overwhelmingly represented in marginal seats and have to fight really hard to keep their seats. We tend to say we'll give winnable seats to women, but those winnable seats are often the marginal seats. So perhaps on this day we could recognise and remind ourselves that it's a good thing for all political parties to nominate women in seats that they can hold for a little bit longer than just one term.

It's especially fitting that I speak on this motion today and that the 100th anniversary of Edith Cowan's election fell on Friday, as we have tens of thousands of women today marching to demand justice, fairness and an end to discrimination, harassment and violence in their workplaces, in public spaces and in their homes. I think about Edith Cowan and what she would have done. What would Edith Cowan have done if she were here today? I think she would have been there. She would have been right here in this place, right there raising her voice in a collective shout, demanding to be heard.

It's also fitting that Edith Cowan's 100th anniversary of being elected came at the end of the week of International Women's Day, where the theme was 'Choose to Challenge'. We no longer have the luxury of choice, if ever indeed we had the luxury of choosing to challenge. Today we are compelled to challenge, as Edith was. We are compelled to speak out, as Edith was. We don't get to choose anymore. It is no longer a choice. We cannot stay silent, just as Edith could not. She had no choice but to run for politics, to see the change that she wanted to see for the rights of women and children.

Today we have a moment and an opportunity to honour the legacy of Edith Cowan, to honour the legacy of a woman who stood against all odds—a remarkable and formidable woman who would not be silenced, who did not see challenges, but saw a responsibility to be there, to be at that table, to speak—and who refused to stay silent, not for herself but for those who did not have a voice.

We have a moment. We have a moment today, right here, in this place. Let's not squander that moment. Let none of us walk out of here today feeling that we had squandered the opportunity to challenge. Let none of us walk out of here today feeling that we did not take up that responsibility to challenge, because we can no longer stay silent—enough is enough.

We are compelled to speak out. We are compelled to join the voices of tens of thousands of women across Australia to speak out against discrimination, against harassment and against violence towards women and children. Edith would have wanted that. Edith would have wanted us to be here today and to speak out against these injustices. Let's do it for Edith.

ENDS